Monday, December 29, 2008

A Twitter Soap-Opera Emerges. How Fun Is This?!

If you're looking for an interesting piece of gossip as a conversation-starter at your upcoming New Year's Eve party, here is some amusing drama that's unfolding in the blogosphere.

As Michael Arrington has chronicled, a row has erupted over whether Twitter should have a certain type of search filter. Right now, everyone's messages on Twitter are treated in exactly the same way. If I post a message, it appears in a list to all of my followers on their home pages, and on those pages, my message is just as visible as anyone else's that they're following – no more, no less. Some people believe Twitter has become the most popular microblogging service specifically because of this type of egalitarian treatment.

So anyway, the big stink began two nights ago when a blogger named Loic Le Meur made a seemingly innocent request “to filter results by the number of followers a user has”. To some people like Arrington, this made perfect sense as a way to know “which voices are louder and making a bigger impact”.

But others were enraged at the mere suggestion. In their minds, filtering according to the number of followers broke with the sacred egalitarian view among Twitter's most cult-like devotees. They soon commented on all of the reasons why it was a horrendous idea, and Sarah Lacy even called out Le Meur by proclaiming that “No one could be this nakedly egotistical and self-serving.”

That was Act One in the drama. Act Two then consisted of Arrington labeling such rhetoric as “vitriol” and telling those people to “get it together”. Well, calling these people, – some of whom are among the most prominent bloggers out there, – essentially, overreacting lunatics, didn't go over too well either. We're now in Act Three where those bloggers are responding harshly back at Arrington. For example, Robert Scoble this morning has a new post titled, “Thanks Mike Arrington for Taking Us Off the Rails Into Twitter Idiot Land”.

Is this fantastic stuff or what?

Most of you probably couldn't care less about the merits of specific filters on Twitter... which is partly what should make this so amusing. It's like a group of Star Trek fanatics getting into a fist fight over the type of phaser being used in Episode 37. People watching the fight don't even really get what it's about, and that makes the ultra-seriousness of the fighters seem that much more comical.

For the record, I also think that Le Meur's filter idea is a bad one. Just so everyone understands, it would be like giving priority in your Facebook feed to the status messages of those of your “friends” who have more followers than others. But too much of the Web already favors popularity, whether through Google's search algorithms or Technorati's authority rankings, rather than the quality of content. Especially in our online social-networks, we often prefer to hear from everyone in a way in which their voices all share the same volume.

With all of that said, however, Arrington was totally right in reminding us that even if such a filter on Twitter were to be created, it would be optional anyway! This really is a nasty fight over nothing of any importance. And despite his message to “get it together” being the right one, all Arrington did was join the fray.
  

Sunday, December 28, 2008

How Can the Stimulus Plan Help the Internet?

With over a trillion dollars expected to be doled out in the first weeks of the Obama Administration, it only makes sense that any money set aside for "infrastructure improvements" include making the internet - as vital to our economy as any other industry in existence - more reliable, more secure, and more universally accessible in terms of broadband access.

But as with every part of the expected stimulus plan, the money ought not to simply be spent, but be spent wisely.

To that end, not everyone agrees on how to spend internet infrastructural funding in the most effective way. As this Wired article describes, several plans have recently emerged:

There are many urging that the $800 billion or so economic stimulus plan include money for broader broadband. Higher education IT consortium EDUCAUSE suggests $100 billion (.pdf) be spent on fat fiber optic links to homes, while FreePress, a net neutrality advocacy group, has a $44 billion plan. For its part, the FCC has a pending proposal to open a swath of the airwaves dedicated to free, but filtered, wireless internet.


The Wired article focuses on the need for more data to be collected before such important decisions get made. However, the odds of the large ISPs and telecoms having a sudden revelation and publishing their data seem extremely slim, and although the FCC may compel them to do so, that process would take months or years. The stimulus money, in some form, should be put to work sooner rather than later.

The time for educated best-guesses is upon us, and for my two cents, it seems like a no-brainer that federal funds would do a lot of good right now to expand broadband access to rural areas and underprivileged neighborhoods, though the time for building fat fiber optic pipes to each home may still be a bit premature. Public, municipal Wi-Fi services also appear to be an obvious (and relatively low-cost) investment in a 21st-century infrastructure. Finally, cybersecurity has been grossly neglected as a national priority since 9/11, and it would be a travesty for whatever stimulus plan that emerges not to include major provisions towards securing cyberspace.

All of that said, Wired raises some of the best questions about internet policy that you're likely to find. While I don't consider them necessarily prerequisite to creating a stimulus plan, they do indicate just where this field is going, and what internet policy issues will be most prominent on the agenda over the next few years...

Should Congress attach net neutrality rules to any federal funds?

Should governments subsidize companies like AT&T even more? Compel cities to lay down and rent out fiber to the home?

How much pipe is already laid? Who owns the pipe now, and who should own the pipe in the future?

Should broadband companies be regulated like utilities or be subject to common carrier rules like airlines are? How much competition is there already?

What happened to all the promises that the nation's phone companies made about cheap DSL? What's been the effect of freeing the phone companies from having to lease their lines at wholesale prices, besides the closure of thousands of small ISPs? Where's the congestion? What pipes are not used and why not?
  

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Meaning of Online Friendship...

During this holiday season many of us take a few moments to be thankful for our family, our careers, and our friends - but just what that means is a bit problematic.

It's not exactly news that the standards for what constitutes our friends in real life are quite different than those determining our "friends" in cyberspace. Even the novice Facebook user shares in the experience of receiving a friend request from someone who was never more than a mild acquaintance, and usually accepting that request solely out of a sense of guilt. Other awkward situations increasingly abound. Teenagers more and more frequently have to decide whether to accept a friend request from their parents, inevitably facing more scrutiny about their "extracurricular" activities. Adults also are being forced into discriminating against whether they want their online presence to be centered around their careers and networking with business associates, or conversely to focus on cultivating a more family-centric presence. In other words, they either want to feel comfortable posting pictures from last week's out-of-control Christmas office party or else pictures of the grandkids, but seldom do they want to make all of those pictures visible to both worlds simultaneously.

Now, the Wall Street Journal is running a piece describing rising levels of anger people are feeling due to being "unfriended" on social-networking sites.

Indeed, use of the word "friend" as a verb - as in 'so-and-so just friended me' - has become just as socially acceptable as using the word "Google" as a verb - as in 'just Google it'. If ever there was a marker of the cultural value of something these days, that may be it.

In response to the Journal piece, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch chronicles how, for a time, Facebook really just wanted users to be online friends with people they already knew in the offline world. However, as that has evolved, the site has been pressured to add features that help users deal with the social stigma that comes with "unfriending" - either by creating different "buckets" (or levels) of friendship with corresponding levels of access to your content, or by creating "fake follows" so that you can pretend to follow certain "friends".

Arrington concludes by stating that, "there is no bright line of right and wrong when it comes to defining online friendship. The algorithms and the humans will meet somewhere in the middle." Unfortunately, this is a pretty wishy-washy statement that doesn't really add insight into anything. Defining online friendship is advancing beyond being simply a curiosity into truly being a problematic issue in terms of all of our social relations. And while social theorists play with their ideas, I'm left to struggle with a very real problem of whether to accept a friend request from a former schoolmate with whom I never had even more than a basic conversation. Let's just say that talking about algorithms isn't exactly helpful advice.
  

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Music Industry Ends its Campaign of Suing File-Sharers!

This is perhaps the biggest news in online media to occur in the past decade. At the end of last week, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that it would stop bringing lawsuits against people who share copyrighted music files on the internet.

Downloaders of the world are rejoicing! In the war over sharing music, they have apparently won and the record industry has apparently lost. David has trumped Goliath. Not since the halcyon days of the original Napster have individuals been able to experience online freedoms without fear of retribution, until now.

Well, not quite. Amid all the hysteria, let's take a moment to examine what's actually going on here.

First of all, the record industry isn't throwing in the towel by any means. They are simply adjusting their strategy against piracy. Their new plan is to detect who is illegally sharing copyrighted files and alert the person's ISP about it. The ISP is expected to contact that person with a warning. After the third warning, the person's internet access will be cut off.

In other words, it's a three-strikes-and-your-out policy, with the hope being that the fear of losing one's internet access will be more of a deterrent than the threat of a lawsuit has been in the past.

Second, the downloaders shouldn't get credit for "winning" anything. Sure, their persistence has continued to be the biggest thorn in the side of the billion-dollar industry, however, the real catalyst for the RIAA's change in strategy was an economic one. They finally realized that the 35,000 lawsuits that they'd brought since 2003 wasn't giving them enough bang for their buck. That number clearly illustrates how their "subpoena, settle, or sue" process was little more than symbolic from the start, and the data proves how it had virtually no effect on deterrence. All it did was rack up lawyer fees.

Instead, the RIAA is hoping that their new strategy will simply streamline their costs. Rather than litigating through the court system, which has been mind-bogglingly expensive for them, they now plan on shifting the responsibility, and the associated costs, to the ISPs instead.

This is clearly a business decision focused on the bottom line, rather than any type of concession of defeat.

All of that said, this is gigantic news. In what has been the defining mainstream issue for the Internet Age up to this point, it is nothing less than a complete paradigm shift in norms and expectations.

The euphoria isn't without merit either. People who have been using peer-to-peer networks for legitimate purposes and sharing music files in a perfectly legal manner no longer have to fear undeserved retribution, and that is an extremely positive development. In fact, the very constitutionality of the RIAA's lawsuit strategy has been challenged in the courts by academics and scholars from ivy league institutions even recently.

So before anyone starts dancing in the streets believing that this is the heralding in of a new free-for-all internet era, take a deep breath and remember two things... 1) the recording industry is still trying to punish those who share copyrighted music files, they're just going about it in a different way, and 2) it is still 100% illegal under U.S. law to share copyrighted works without permission.

And that's the bottom line.
  

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jihadists Plan to 'Invade Facebook'...

On the cybersecurity front, there is news today that a group of internet Islamic extremists is putting together a plan for "invading Facebook."

Jihadist groups have long-viewed the internet as a front-line in the propaganda war. For years, they have created blogs and posted YouTube videos. Recent crackdowns on some of their online forums, however, have apparently led to a change in strategy.

Read the jihadist plan to "invade Facebook" for yourself (translated into English by Jihadica.com). It's made clear that "this is not an attempt to replicate the social networks that exist on the forums; the members of the campaign want to exploit existing networks of people who are hostile to them and presumably they will adopt new identities once they have posted their material."

In other words, the jihadists aren't looking to use Facebook to network with each other; they're hoping to spread their propagandist material to the rest of us who are already on Facebook, and who use it for innocent and legitimate purposes.

But as a cybersecurity analyst, I'm curious about two things. First, the jihadist strategy breaks its people down into seven "brigades", each headed by a commander. Such a rigid hierarchy closes off the process to anyone outside of their inner circle, so how do they plan on infiltrating the private social-networks of ordinary Facebook users without "friending" them? Their goal of spreading propaganda to people outside of the jihadi loop seems destined for failure since, unless people start accepting friend requests from these extremists, no one will be able to see what they're posting anyway. Do they even understand how Facebook works?

Second, Facebook is an odd selection to target because its a completely private commercial firm, which can remove material on its site whenever it deems fit. Different than a decentralized peer-to-peer system, any controversial jihadist material will probably be removed before they can say boo about it.

For most of us, this planned "invasion" isn't really much of a threat at all. We all need to be skeptical and on the lookout for propagandist material, but to be honest, when online, everyone should be doing that anyway. This entire "plan" reminds me of new internet startup companies in the late 90s that were desperate simply to get themselves a presence in the space, yet once there, didn't really have any clue what to do with themselves.
  

Thursday, December 18, 2008

We the Tweeple of the United States of America...

Following Barrack Obama's enormous success in harnessing the power of the internet during his presidential campaign, members of Congress are rapidly jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon.

Nearly all Congressmen now sport freshly created Facebook and MySpace pages, and their staffs are working diligently to create for themselves a presence on other social-networking and microblogging sites like Twitter.

A terrific example of the potential of such tools is Tweet Congress. The site lets you find out if your member of Congress is using Twitter, aggregates the Tweetstreams of all Congressmen on the service, and analyzes the data on a state-by-state basis, according to political party, and which Congressmen are the most active and who has the most followers.

The site's preamble reads, "We the Tweeple of the United States, in order to form a more perfect government, establish communication, and promote transparency do hereby Tweet the Congress of the United States of America."



The convergence of politics with Twitter isn't really new. The British Parliament has taken the lead in such innovations for quite some time with its implementation of Tweetminster.

Is there any real significance to this, or is it just an interesting novelty that will pass in a few weeks? Time will tell. However, what's undeniable is that legislators are at least showing a greater willingness to experiment in cyberspace. By using more avenues and forms of media to directly communicate with the public, one thing seems certain to be apparent when the dust settles... We're finally moving beyond Congressmen simply having a static website.
  

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Future of the Internet Revealed...

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just released the third installment of its series titled, "The Future of the Internet".

The survey of internet leaders, activists and analysts has, in the past, offered interesting predictions such as how the dawning of the blog era will bring radical change to the news and publishing industry, that the internet will have the least impact on religious institutions, and that "those who are connected online will devote more time to sophisticated, compelling, networked, synthetic worlds".

For this year's installment, a consensus among the experts has led to the following predictions...


  • The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the internet for most people in the world in 2020.

  • The transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness.

  • Voice recognition and touch user-interfaces with the internet will be more prevalent and accepted by 2020.

  • Those working to enforce intellectual property law and copyright protection will remain in a continuing arms race, with the crackers who will find ways to copy and share content without payment.

  • The divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who is connected, and the results will be mixed in their impact on basic social relations.

  • Next-generation engineering of the network to improve the current internet architecture is more likely than an effort to rebuild the architecture from scratch.


Some of these are, admittedly, more interesting than others, while some don't seem to be controversial at all. However, what predictions might YOU make???
  

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What's Really Going On with Google and Net Neutrality...

To what extent do companies like Google actually mean what they publicly say about net neutrality?

This is the question that reluctantly must be asked after the latest storm that's raging like a tornado in cyberspace. The catalyst was this piece by the Wall Street Journal yesterday reporting that Google - the most prominent advocate of net neutrality in the past - has secretly "approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content".

Such a deal would be a direct violation of net neutrality - the so-called First Amendment of the internet which states that all online content be treated equally regardless of the type of content, its originating source, or destination. Understanding the issue boils down to this: broadband providers have wanted to create an internet "toll-lane" where companies could pay thousands of dollars per month so that their content would reach users faster, however supporters of net neutrality have argued that such a system would give giant corporations an unfair systemic advantage over new startups, universities, and individuals.

Google and others have long publicly supported net neutrality, which is why the Wall Street Journal's report is so unsettling. In addition to its claim that Google has approached the broadband providers about circumventing net neutrality principles, it also states that Microsoft and Yahoo have "withdrawn quietly" from the advocacy coalition and have "forged partnerships" with the phone and cable companies.

Was this leaked information, or was it inaccurate journalism? That's the million-dollar question.

Trying to head off the furor, Google today issued this blog post citing how the Journal piece was grossly inaccurate, and that it irresponsibly confused net neutrality with a practice known as "edge caching". "We've always said that broadband providers can engage in activities like colocation and caching, so long as they do so on a non-discriminatory basis."

What exactly is meant by "non-discriminatory" is also a topic of dispute. The New York Times threw in their two cents by adding...

Google isn’t being as hypocritical as The Journal story made out. But it shares the some of the blame for the sloppy rhetoric used by advocates of network neutrality. Sometimes the issue is framed as a total bandwidth egalitarianism, when that’s not really what they want.

There is a huge fight here, not over whether there will be first class and coach seats, but how those seats will be priced and who will pay for them. Google and others are saying that, in effect, every seat in the same class of service should have the same price, and that Internet providers can’t add surcharges to companies they don’t like or give discounts to those they do.


As this drama continues to unfold, many of us who are actually supporters of net neutrality are left shaking our heads. I'm inclined to give Google the benefit of the doubt - particularly after getting endorsements today from scholars I respect like Lawrence Lessig and David Isenberg. However, the Wall Street Journal is still sticking by its story, and because of the specter of its possible truth, I'd be lying if I said my confidence wasn't at least shaken.
  

Friday, December 12, 2008

Obama is "Open for Questions" Online, and Not Everyone Likes It...

Another initiative has been launched by President-Elect Obama in his campaign to use the internet to improve government.

A pilot program called "Open for Questions" was just created on his transition team's Change.gov website. The idea behind it is to allow ordinary citizens to post questions that they want the president to address, and also to let all citizens vote on which existing questions they think are the best. In Web circles, this is modeled on Digg's system of using voting-based mechanisms to decide which stories (or, in this case, questions) come to the forefront.

Right now, take a look at this link and see which questions people have voted for the most.

Immediately, both the benefits and drawbacks of using such a voting-based system become apparent. The benefits are that the system becomes more democratic as ordinary folks are granted some power over decision-making, rather than elite gatekeepers, and ideally could even play a greater role in setting the agenda. The drawbacks, as are clearly demonstrated, are that the questions ultimately asked are not necessarily of, shall we say, a serious or vital nature.

For example, according to how people voted this week, the #1 issue the president ought to address is, "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?".

While I don't mean to downplay or denigrate marijuana legalization as a political issue to its supporters, almost everyone would agree that it's probably not the single most important challenge that this nation currently faces. More significantly, it's selection as the top vote-getter only serves to highlight the flaws of such voting-based systems.

The most obvious flaw of such systems is that it underplays the role of expertise. Poll after national poll shows that the financial crisis is the greatest concern on Americans' minds right now, yet because the ordinary citizen doesn't have substantial expertise on topics like financial derivatives, they are less likely to post questions on the topic or vote in favor of them. This, as a consequence, skews the results.

Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest flaw is an ideological one. As Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins writes, netizens have for years clinged to a belief in "The Wisdom of Crowds" - meaning that collective, disorganized group decisions lead to better results than decisions made by one or two people who are actually in positions of authority. Thus were born websites like Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon.

However, the "wisdom of crowds" only works if individuals act independently from one another, and the history of social media websites proves that this isn't typically the case. More often, "bury brigades" begin to form whereby individuals collectively mobilize in order to make their voices louder and more important than the rest. And this skews the results as well.

Considering that the people most likely to already be using the "Open for Questions" website are tech-savvy teenagers and young adults in their twenties, that puts the selection of the marijuana issue in a bit more context.

Ultimately, it would be wise to remember that "Open for Questions" remains only a pilot program and is not playing any role in governing the nation. Its sole intention at this point is to be one part of a larger effort to test what uses of technology might be helpful governmental tools; and perhaps offer citizens more avenues for participation and ways to feel involved. These are noble goals, and, again, the incoming Administration is showing some real chops by simply having a willingness to try new things out. That willingness, coupled with a seemingly advanced Internet-generation mentality, bodes well of more things to come.
  

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Student Suspended for Creating Facebook Group...

A new lawsuit has been filed in Florida federal court where a high school student, Katherine Evans, is challenging whether her school can rightfully suspend her over her activities on Facebook. Basically, Evans created a Facebook group called "Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I've ever met!," and invited fellow students to share their feelings as well. Pembroke Pines Charter High School suspended Evans for three days for "disruptive behavior" and for "bullying/cyberbullying harassment towards a staff member".

The real question is to what extent schools can punish students for their online behavior when it occurs completely off-campus and using only privatized, commercial web services. Where do school jurisdictions end and where does free speech begin?

The courts are grappling with defining this fine line. In the past, student speech cases usually involved student newspapers and dress codes. With the internet, however, there is a new tidal wave of lawsuits being brought concerning students' activities in private, rather than public, spaces.

As David Kravets describes, there is a growing list of cases tackling this problem:

A Texas high school volleyball coach in September went so far as to declare a ban on student Facebook and MySpace profiles, a decision the Northside Independent School District reversed. Last month, Tennessee State University blocked the online gossip site JuicyCampus at the school firewall. In June, Missouri enacted a law against "cyberbullying" in the wake of the Megan Meier suicide tragedy, which was triggered by a hoax MySpace account.


Common sense would dictate that any student speech advocating threats, violence, or physical harm of any kind ought to be suppressed, and schools would be fully within their rights to do so. However, none of that was the case here. All Evans did was simply create a forum for expressing displeasure. That alone makes the school's punishment seem egregious. Throw into that the fact that the group was created off-campus using Facebook - a private commercial website - and the school's argument for the suspension stands on even shakier ground.

As an educator myself, I fully appreciate the need to prevent cyberbullying and online defamation. Schools should be implementing policies making clear to students what type of internet activity is and is not permitted on school computers and using other school resources (like hosting pages on their web servers). Many types of truly harmful activities simply cannot be permitted, like cyberbullying, regardless of the venue.

That said, a school's jurisdiction over their students must end at some point, and the private sphere seems the most logical venue. If activity on Facebook can lead to punishment, then what's to say that schools cannot similarly suspend students for the content of their emails, the videos they post on YouTube, the music they download at home, the edits they make on Wikipedia, or the comments they leave on blogs? Why not just prevent them from experiencing cyberspace completely until they're 18?

As much as I'd hate for my own students to start a Facebook group bashing my teaching skills, I'm pretty much accepting of the fact that, assuming it is not threatening, injurious, or defamatory in any way, there's nothing I can really do about it. While I'm not too thrilled at that prospect, I also understand the inherent dangers in overreaching my authority (or my school's authority) in punishing individuals for what they do in the private sphere.

This is just the digital world that we live in; and we simply have to take the good with the bad. The alternative - barring perfectly legal participation in cyberspatial activities - would only do irreparable damage to our students' interests in a modern, globalized world.
  

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

British ISPs Censor Wikipedia Over 'Scorpions' Album Cover...

The buzz is quickly spreading around cyberspace today that British editors of Wikipedia have been cut off by their ISPs. Apparently, the row is over the cover art from The Scorpions' album, Virgin Killer, which depicts a naked prepubescent girl.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) blacklisted Wikipedia after learning that the cover art was viewable on one of its web pages. But just who are these guys? The IWF touts itself as a sort of hotline where anyone can call in tips on "potentially illegal online content" and, somehow, 95% of British ISPs voluntarily abide by their blacklisting recommendations.

That's an awful lot of power for a private group to have without any legal basis.

Making matters worse, the consequence of the blacklisting has been that roughly 20,000 Wikipedia editors in Britain - which account for about one quarter of all of the site's English-language edits - have lost access to Wikipedia entirely. In other words, because one individual posted a controversial picture, 19,999 other people have, in effect, been completely censored from writing or editing about any topic on the entire site.

Additionally,

"The album is available in record shops in the UK with the controversial image. You can buy it right now. So do we need to worry the police will come and confiscate our record collections?" asked David Gerard, a Wikipedia editor in London.

Wikipedia declined to remove the album cover. "We are particularly displeased that the IWF chose to censor not solely the image, but also the explanatory article text which described and contextualized the controversy surrounding the image, in a neutral and educational fashion," the foundation said in a statement.


As absurd as some of this may seem, the backlash is already on its way. Hacktivists have spent the last 24 hours making sure that the album's image is posted everywhere online and is readily accessible, including in Britain. The actual Wikipedia page with the image has been made available through proxy servers by hacktivists living outside of the UK, bloggers have been re-posting the image left and right as they discuss the controversy, and some have even publicized the link to the BitTorrent file where people can download the entire album itself, along with the original cover art.

Once again, the hacktivists are demonstrating that if companies use too heavy a hand in exercising their authority - particularly in cases where they collectively punish thousands of individuals over an act committed by one person which may not even be illegal - then those companies can be sure to expect the exact results they are trying to ward off.
  

Monday, December 08, 2008

Are You A Facebook Addict?

A case study in irony today, courtesy of Mashable...

A new social website has been launched in beta called "BeatingAddiction.com" which allows people to join support groups for different addictions. The various support groups include those for alcoholism and drug use, which might be expected, however there are also support groups for people addicted to Facebook, AOL instant messenger, Twitter, and World of Warcraft.

Have Facebook and our other online guilty pleasures really entered the realm of addiction to such an extent that their support groups ought to be listed side-by-side with alcoholism and drug use?

But here's the real kicker. As Pete Cashmore observes, "the time has really passed for niche social networks [like BeatingAddiction]. To gain any traction these days, services must plugin in to existing networks. Ironically, perhaps, BeatingAddiction would gain more traction as a Facebook [application] than a standalone site."

Which means, of course, that there would be a paradox of people having to login to Facebook in order to participate in their Facebook addiction support group.

Who else is scratching their heads over this?
  

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Identity Wars Have Begun...

The battle lines have been forming gradually over the past two years, but now 2009 seems poised to become the Year of the Identity Wars.

For all of you social-network users out there, here's the deal. Many of us share the experience of first having, say, a MySpace account, only a few months later to create a Facebook account, and maybe again a few months later creating a Twitter or Digg account, etc. And whenever we're surfing the Web and want to leave comments or buy products on other sites, we have to create new accounts for them as well. Isn't re-entering our personal information and having to re-discover our "friends" a major pain in the rear-end?

This is the problem that social media companies are desperate to solve. What they all want to do is be able to say to people: create a profile and "friend" network with us, and you'll be able to use that information to login anywhere on the internet; bringing your "friends", your one username/password combination, and (ideally) your purchase history and credit card information with you everywhere you go. Rather than having several cyber identities, you'll have only one, housed with us, and you'll never need another again.

This utopian vision is closer than you think. The technology is already here, and the major companies already all have services designed to do exactly this. It's just a question of which will be the first to reach a tipping point of users adopting their service over that of their rivals.

On one side of the battle is the social media powerhouse Facebook. Its service, Facebook Connect, lets users participate on other websites, like Digg and CNET, using their Facebook IDs. The user also gets the option of re-broadcasting whatever they do on the third-party site on their News Feed within Facebook. The user can also match existing friend relationships on Facebook with those on the third-party site.

The major drawback to Facebook Connect is that the social data gathered in these transactions all gets fed back into Facebook. By implementing Facebook Connect, a site owner is agreeing to share any data it collects about users who log in using the system with Facebook -- and Facebook alone.

Users get the benefit of carrying all that Facebook friend data with them, but they can't use it anywhere else. If they want to broadcast their activities on Digg through some other means, like a Blogger blog, they're on their own.


On the other side of the battle is, basically, everyone else. Because Facebook is such a gargantuan foe, the field has teamed up and are all backing a service known as OpenID. Rivals such as Google Friend Connect, MySpace Data Availability, Yahoo, AIM, EBay, and more have all adopted OpenID in the hopes that it will become more universal.

There is a key difference in the battle between Facebook vs. The World: Facebook is one social network, while OpenID, led by Google Friend Connect, can be used by any site, service or social network that uses OpenID for identification.

In other words, Facebook Connect is completely useless to anyone who doesn't have a Facebook account, whereas OpenID can be made useful regardless of whether you have your account with Google, AOL, Yahoo, MySpace, etc. How much this will matter is the million-dollar question.

This battle will also pit two competing ideologies against one another: that of the relative merits between proprietary vs. open source systems. Facebook Connect is proprietary - meaning it's privately owned by one entity and therefore closed to everyone without express permission - while OpenID is based on open source technologies that can be shared and used by all. The casual user probably couldn't care less, however the community of web developers has been anxiously awaiting a fight like this for years, and the result will be sure to have serious consequences on business models in the foreseeable future.

All that said, my (ahem!) expert analysis leads me to believe that OpenID is definitely the better way to go from a developer perspective. It will allow programmers to more easily innovate fresh ideas while ordinary users will probably find it more helpful in their day-to-day cyber lives. However, the non-developer (a.k.a. - "normal human being") in me knows just how ubiquitous Facebook is and how devoted is its following. Despite the technical advantages of OpenID, it's going to be pretty hard to overcome the "human advantages" of Facebook.

But it should be fun to watch the Identity Wars play out, regardless.
  

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Obama and the Start of a New Copyright Regime...

President-elect Obama continues to look sincere in his campaign pledge to use the internet to improve government. Next up... reforming the nation's copyright regime.

Yesterday, on his transition team's website, Change.gov, he made a modification to the website's copyright policy. Without much fanfare or any media coverage, the site now uses a Creative Commons license, rather than the traditional command-and-control copyright, and this small change may signal a titanic shift in how our nation approaches the challenges of digital copyright law.

Here's why. You may not realize it, but legally, as you surf the Web everyday, you are not allowed to copy-and-paste text or download pictures off of a website without first getting the copyright owner's express permission, and this applies to content on both government and commercial websites. In reality, this makes basically all of us criminals; thus, people have been calling for reform of the law.

However, under the Creative Commons license, you are now free to copy, distribute, transmit, and even remix (or adapt) any of the content on the Change.gov website. This is significant because what the transition team chooses to make available to the public can now be legally shared between people after that fact. It may seem like common sense, yet it hasn't been the case up to this point.

While celebrating this decision towards a more open license that encourages an attitude of sharing content, advocate groups from both sides of the aisle including MoveOn.org and Newt Gingrich's American Solutions, not to mention legal scholar and copyright guru Lawrence Lessig, have released a letter suggesting a few additional changes as well. They call for...


  • No legal barrier to sharing - As has just been done with the Change.gov website, "content made publicly available should be freely licensed so that citizens can share, excerpt, remix or otherwise redistribute this content without unnecessary complexity imposed by the law."

    In other words, make it legal to copy and share digital works.

  • No technological barrier to sharing - "A merely legal freedom to share and remix, however, can be thwarted by technological constraints. Content made publicly available should also be freely accessible, not blocked by technological barriers... For example, while content may be posted on a particular site such as YouTube, because YouTube does not authorize videos on its site to be downloaded, transition-created content should also be made available on a site that does permit downloads... There are a host of services — such as blip.tv — which not only enable users to download freely licensed content, but which also explicitly marks the content with freedom it carries. However else the transition chooses to distribute its content, it should assure that at least one channel maintains this essential digital freedom."

    In other words, make sure that restrictive technologies don't get in the way of people sharing those digital works.

  • Free Competition - "Governments should remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas. Transition-generated content should thus not be made publicly available in a way that unfairly benefits one commercial entity over another, or commercial entities over noncommercial entities... For example, if video of a press conference is made available in real time to television networks, it should at the same time be made accessible in a standard, universal format for download and sharing. If the transition chooses to make video accessible on YouTube, releasing the same video simultaneously in a standard, universal format will allow other video sites to syndicate that content as well... Ideally, that format should be nonproprietary. But so long as the content is freely licensed (Principle #1), and free access is secured (Principle #2), transcoding would not be inhibited. The transition would thus not be supporting one platform to the exclusion of others."

    In other words, distribute those digital works in standard, universal formats to which everyone has equal access.


It shouldn't be hard to see why there are opponents lining up to make sure that this doesn't become a trend. The music and movie industries, in their decade-long efforts to fight piracy, have actually adopted strategies on the opposite side of all three of these principles. Those industries have fought the legalization of ANY copying of digital works (#1), they have fought to keep technological barriers to sharing in place, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM) Software (#2), and they have fought the legalization of distribution channels, like peer-to-peer software, that encourage the sharing of digital works, and to which everyone has equal access (#3).

I'm sure the Obama team doesn't intend to simply legalize all acts of blatant piracy. Even in a few years, if you download a Beatles song off the internet without paying for it, you'll still be putting yourself in trouble. However, the fact that Obama seems poised to break down the legal and technological barriers so that people can actually have free access to government documents is an overwhelmingly positive development. Not only will it lead to more openness and transparency in government, but it will completely undermine the entertainment industry's absurd claims that the sky will fall unless every cultural artifact is encrypted, and that the very fabric of civilization will somehow be destroyed if peer-to-peer networks are allowed to exist.
  

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Criminalizing the Act of Creating a Fake Persona Online...

The days of creating a fake username so that you can surf the Web anonymously may be over.

Yesterday saw the conclusion of one of the most prominent legal cases ever dealing with privacy and identity issues on the internet - the Lori Drew case. Basically, Lori Drew was an overprotective mom who established a fake online identity to bully her daughter's rival. She created a MySpace account under the name "Josh Evans" and bullied the 13-year-old Megan Meier so relentlessly that it directly led to her to suicide.

The judge's ruling not only found Lori Drew guilty of cyberbullying, but, and perhaps more importantly, has also now criminalized the act of creating a fake persona online. As RWW says, "the aftershocks of the ruling could very well impact the online identity creation process for years to come if it's not overturned."

A great debate is ensuing today over this case, and it has very little to do with Lori Drew, whose actions are almost universally condemned. The debate is whether this case signals the end of online anonymity.

Broadstuff notes the underlying problems: "I wonder what a fake persona counts as - is a nom de plume ok if its clear who you are on investigation? And how is this going to be enforced across chatrooms and social nets everywhere? I suspect a rash of "real sounding" names will emerge..."

But such sentiments rest on the assumption that we've already had a high degree of anonymity and privacy in the past. And depending on how conspiracy-minded you happen to be, that's certainly a highly questionable assumption, to say the least. Allen Stern wrote a piece just last week titled, "Google Knows Where I Am and Everything Else I Do," in which he details all of the information that is being tracked about your online life. And who can forget when Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems (who has actual firsthand knowledge of the subject), famously proclaimed, "You already have no privacy. Get over it".

To add my two cents, I think that most of the bloggers who today are fearmongering with apocalyptic calls of "the end of online anonymity" are being far too alarmist. Internet surfers who really wanted to hide their identity use tactics far beyond simply creating a false MySpace name, and the decentralized architecture of the Web still affords them those options. Meanwhile, for the mainstream user, whatever expectation of anonymity we might have had went out the window long ago anyway. So let's applaud the judge's efforts to reign in the act of cyberbullying, while remaining cautiously hopeful that future courts will not take an overly broad interpretation of this decision.
  

Monday, December 01, 2008

What Recession? Cyber Monday Thrives...

The holiday season is upon us, and we, as consumers, can expect nothing less than an all-out assault on our financial sensibilities.

Last week's "Black Friday" was the official start of the holiday shopping madness - the biggest day for retailers of the calendar year. Not to be outdone, today is "Cyber Monday" - the day when we spend more money shopping online than any other day of the year (for those who prefer avoiding the mall altogether).

Recession be damned, consumerism is alive and well in the United States of America. Or at least retailers believe that's the case. "Cyber Monday", which is actually sponsored by Shop.org, part of the U.S. trade association National Retail Federation, has a website called CyberMonday.com, which lists special offers, coupons, and "Deals of the Hour". It's completely overloaded with content and is a web designer's worst nightmare, yet for the online shopper filled with holiday hysteria, they're sure to find plenty of money-saving discounts.

But the madness has spread even further this year. To encourage the high levels of spending to continue, there's a new push being tested tomorrow for "Mobile Tuesday", in which various retailers will send out coupons to participants' cell phones.

Even the anti-consumerist sentiment is finding a home, rolling out "Buy Nothing Day", an international day of protest against consumerism observed by social activists.

It seems that regardless of whether you plan on being frugal and knitting scarves to give away as Christmas presents, or whether you plan to mortgage your house to buy expensive, unnecessary, and frivolous crap for your entire network of Facebook friends, there is a home online for you somewhere this holiday season.

Isn't that reassuring?